|Saslaw speaks at the Legislative Town Hall.|
The landmark transportation bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly last week is far from perfect, but it provides a badly needed infusion of new money and sets a precedent for recognizing the needs of Northern Virginia, lawmakers representing the Annandale area told constituents at a Legislative Town Hall April 6.
Rep. Kay Kory, Sen. Dave Marsden, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, all of them Democrats, discussed a range of issues before a large crowd at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School.
The transportation bill could have been much better, but “it’s the first new revenue for transportation in 27 years,” said Kory (38th District). “It was the most bipartisan effort that I have ever seen.”
The final measure was far different from the transportation bill proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) at the start of the session, but it wouldn’t have passed if he didn’t support the compromise, Kory said. Although the money it provides isn’t enough to cover what’s needed, it does recognize the value of keeping a large proportion of the funds in Northern Virginia, she noted. “It sets a foundation; we’ll be able to build on this.”
The measure approved in a special session last week substantially cuts gasoline taxes and offsets that loss of revenue by raising the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent and shifting $100 million from the general fund—which goes to schools, law enforcement, and other needs—to transportation. It also provides more funds for regional authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which they could earmark for transportation projects.
Those changes—along with higher fees for car registration and titles—will generate about $600 million a year for transportation statewide, including around $200-$275 million a year for Northern Virginia, said Saslaw (35th District) said. Over the next six years, that comes to $3.5 billion a year for the state and more than $1.5 billion for Northern Virginia.
The impact of those changes will result in an increased tax burden of about $100 a year for the average household, he said, although the amount will vary depending on how much people spend.
Saslaw said the new $64 fee for hybrid cars—cut back from McDonnell’s original proposal of $100—“doesn’t make any sense.” The idea is to generate some revenue from hybrid owners because they will pay less in gas taxes. But the major automakers produce small cars that use regular gas and get around 44 miles per gallon, while larger sport utility hybrids, like the Chevy Tahoe hybrid, only get around 21 miles per gallon.
In attempting to explain the hybrid fee, “you have to understand the Southern Virginia mentality,” said Marsden (37th District). “We all spend an hour driving to work, but people in rural Virginia drive 45 miles, while commuters in Northern Virginia only go 12 miles,” he said. Rural Virginians buy more gas and fewer consumer goods. They say people in Northern Virginia have higher incomes and are more likely to drive hybrids—and it’s Northern Virginians who are complaining about traffic.
The beltway express lanes aren’t producing nearly enough revenue as expected, Saslaw said, adding that he never supported the public-private partnership under which Transurban paid for the vast majority of the project in return for keeping the toll revenue.
Transurban needs to rake in $275,000 a day in tolls but is only collecting about $25,000 to $30,000, Saslaw said. The regular lanes are moving faster, so fewer people are paying tolls. “They’re getting killed,” he said of Transurban. That’s why they opened up the express lanes for free this weekend. “If they go under, we have a pretty good chance of getting it at bargain basement prices.”
Saslaw derided the governor for having the state spend $1.4 billion for Route 460, which he called “the road to nowhere.” This new toll road, from Suffolk to Hopewell, is parallel to an existing road that has few stoplights, he said, and gets fewer cars a day than Sleepy Hollow Road.
Kory credits a “huge outpouring form the public” for the General Assembly’s agreement to expand Medicaid as part of a compromise on transportation.
If Virginia doesn’t apply for the expansion, hospitals will be taxed as if Medicaid coverage is expanded, Saslaw said. That would have raised their costs by some $2.3 billion, which would be passed along to patients. In addition, people without coverage would end up in the emergency room, which also drives up health costs. For those reasons, business groups supported the Medicaid expansion, he said.
According to Saslaw, the expanding Medicaid coverage would help an additional 400,000 Virginians get access to healthcare and could generate about 30,000 new jobs.
The lawmakers expressed disappointment that the General Assembly failed to pass legislation aimed at curbing gun violence. A bill to require universal background checks on gun buyers—aimed at closing the gun show loophole—failed on an 8-7 vote. “That would have been a crack in the door,” Marsden said.
Despite the national focus on gun violence following the horrific Sandy Hook massacre, Kory said gun rights advocates lobbied heavily in Richmond, and “there was huge resistance in the Generation Assembly” against doing anything to restrict guns.
According to Saslaw, the new law requiring voters to have a photo ID was put forth in the General Assembly for one reason: “to suppress the minority vote.” Voter fraud is not a problem in Virginia. The only states where voter IDs laws have gotten passed is where Republicans hold a majority, he said. Voter suppression was also the reason behind the failure to expand early voting.
There is a generation of blacks in the state that don’t have birth certificates and that don’t drive, Kory noted. Those are the people targeted in the photo ID law. “We’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Saslaw said. It’s easier to buy a gun in Virginia than vote.”
Saslaw did give credit to McDonnell for trying to restore voting rights for felons. But that measure was killed by his fellow Republicans.
Sometimes it takes a long time to get some things accomplished, said Marsden, but continuing to speak up about an issue will hopefully pay off in the long run. That’s how he feels about his bill to get Virginia to stop sentencing youth under 18 to life without parole for crimes in which no one died. Marsden’s bill to change that to 20 years to life didn’t get anywhere, so he plans to try again next year.
Marsden also failed to get the state to close state correctional facilities for juvenile offenders. He said these kids would be better off in local detention centers where they can be near their families and schools.
The General Assembly took action on distracted driving, imposing a fine of $125 for a first offense, $250 for a subsequent offenses, and a mandatory minimum fine of $250 for a driver convicted of reckless driving while texting. In addition, police can now pull over a driver for distracted driving as a primary offense.
Most the bills that would have made it more difficult for women to make decisions about abortion were killed. One measure that passed prohibits private health insurance plans in federally mandated exchanges under Obamacare from covering abortions.
A lot of people think it’s tax dollars that pay for abortions, Kory said. It’s not; it’s private insurance companies. And now private companies can’t even offer coverage for abortions.
Marsden said he’s disappointed that his bill to ban the inhumane practice of fox penning failed to pass but said he will introduced it again next year. Meanwhile the continuing attention to the issue has resulted in the Department of Games and Fisheries issuing regulations to prohibit cash prizes and restrict the number of dogs. Fox penning is a blood sport in which foxes are trapped in fenced-in areas so dogs can hunt them down and sometimes rip them apart.
A member of the audience pressed the lawmakers to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. “I just don’t see that getting through the General Assembly,” Saslaw said.